Artist Profile - - CONTENTS - by Ju­dith Pugh

IT’S A LONG DRIVE WEST FROM SYD­NEY. THE ar­chi­tec­ture along the Blue Moun­tains ridge seems de­signed to ob­scure their majesty, there’s no vis­ual plea­sure on the route to the out­skirts of Bathurst. Of course the dis­tance from the dis­trac­tions of ur­ban life has en­ticed many artists to Hill End, most no­tably Don­ald Friend and Tas Drys­dale, in the 1940s and ’50s. But John Firth-Smith?

Firth-Smith is an ab­stract pain­ter of ex­pan­sive med­i­ta­tions in space, shapes rem­i­nis­cent of boats and shore­lines and ob­jects on and around the lit­toral zone, re­mem­ber­ing the edges of waves, their height, wide ex­panses of can­vas: images and ab­strac­tion from the sea and sail­ing; line, edge, curve, bal­ance. They sug­gest emo­tion and play with the­ory. His am­bigu­ous im­agery ren­ders a stretch of paint as rope, as foam, as the re­flec­tion of the moon; and as a play of tex­ture or an idea about shape, on lay­ered ground.

With crit­i­cal no­tice since 1961, com­mer­cial suc­cess, ex­hi­bi­tions na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, he has won many prizes, he’s in ev­ery ma­jor na­tional col­lec­tion. And to in­ter­view him Artist Pro­file is trav­el­ling to Hill End.

On through mar­ginal sheep coun­try. There are no rev­e­la­tory broad vis­tas be­tween these steep-sided lit­tle val­leys. The scarred land­scape, the very his­tory of the area, is min­ing, mi­ne­shafts, in­ti­macy. I won­der what Firth-Smith’s ex­pan­sive en­ergy will reveal of Hill End. An artist who con­tem­plates the del­i­cate mono­tone of wa­ter and air, whose ges­tures across cir­cles sug­gest balanc­ing in a mov­ing boat; whose fluid, in­ter­sect­ing squares and lay­ers of space con­vey mo­men­tum, us­ing ab­strac­tion to med­i­tate about shapes and forms mov­ing through space. Why has Firth-Smith es­tab­lished a stu­dio so far from the sea?

Af­ter park­ing on a wide lawn among big gar­den beds, John and pho­tog­ra­pher Stephen Ox­en­bury wel­come me, and I find a comfy chair while Stephen pho­to­graphs for Artist Pro­file. The liv­ing quar­ters John has added to an orig­i­nal cot­tage pro­vide a rest­ful open area, with the happy clut­ter of an artist’s life: paint­ings, sculp­tures, cu­riosi­ties. An artist’s space is about what catches the eye.

There is al­ways the boy in the man. In John Firth-Smith, one senses the lively boy sur­rounded by a lov­ing, en­cour­ag­ing family. He was two when his min­ing en­gi­neer fa­ther joined the army, and John’s mother took their three chil­dren from Melbourne to her family on New Zealand’s Waitem­ata Har­bour, where John had a mag­i­cal early child­hood. Hav­ing his ideas se­ri­ously con­sid­ered by all his adults, ma­te­ri­als to make things, ex­plor­ing the fore­shore and the wa­ter, the sense of self-in-space-in-mo­tion with the wind and wa­ter in a sail­ing boat, meant no frac­ture from the move. Travel and change are sta­bil­ity for Firth-Smith.

John Firth-Smith is known as a pain­ter of spa­ces and shapes in­spired by his early days grow­ing up around the shore­line of Waitem­ata Har­bour in New Zealand. Yet now he is liv­ing atop the moun­tains at the old min­ing town of Hill End in NSW, far from the near­est shore, and his work has taken on a re­spect and fas­ci­na­tion for the life and ob­jects around him there.

Mono­graphs and cat­a­logue notes dis­cuss his en­gage­ment with the sea and ma­te­rial to do with boats. When the family was re­united in Syd­ney, John was en­cour­aged by both par­ents to ex­plore lo­cal pad­docks and the river. He en­thu­si­as­ti­cally de­scribes the Australian Mu­seum, walk­ing among the skele­tons, the va­ri­ety of in­sects, arte­facts. His fa­ther’s job was as­say­ing aban­doned mines around the War­ragamba Dam site. “There’s a lit­tle ghost town, Yer­ran­derie. There’s noth­ing there, but you get per­mis­sion and get a key to the gate. It was be­fore the dam was built, I went there with him, I must have been eight or nine. My fa­ther had to go down these mi­ne­shafts and sort of chip off bits of rock. It was sil­ver, lead and zinc there, it wasn’t gold.” On the sur­face, in the light, his fa­ther taught him what the tex­tures and colours of the sam­ples meant. It must have been a won­der­ful time. Then, his fa­ther died af­ter a mo­tor ac­ci­dent. Firth-Smith’s re­source­ful mother es­tab­lished a guest house, pa­tro­n­ised by gra­ziers on city vis­its, send­ing John to board at The King’s School. When she re­mar­ried and moved back to Malaya, Firth-Smith spent the long school hol­i­days in that in­ter­est­ing coun­try, shorter ones on the prop­er­ties of some of her gra­zier guests. Thus the con­nec­tion with coun­try is from his youth. At King’s he was happy with row­ing and wood­work; there is still in­dig­na­tion that he was dis­ci­plined for float­ing a boat he made in wood­work on the school pool. Be­fore com­plet­ing his Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate, he ran away from King’s and hitched north with a fel­low pupil, tak­ing odd jobs. On re­turn af­ter months without con­tact he was wel­comed home, went jackeroo­ing, and af­ter com­plet­ing school at a Syd­ney busi­ness col­lege, en­rolled in art school. A wel­com­ing host, he is im­mensely en­er­getic, dis­cussing peo­ple, the art world, his trav­els, the cot­tage, the area’s his­tory, the vil­lage and lo­cal peo­ple; de­scrib­ing the early min­ers’ treks across moun­tains and hills. The com­mit­ment and the process sus­tain­ing his paint­ing are ev­i­dent in the sketch­books he shows us: there are 16 in 2016, with pen­cilled ob­ser­va­tions and paint on and around pho­to­graphs, cut­tings, di­a­gram­matic notes. He thinks con­stantly on pa­per. His work­ing prac­tices de­rive from the four-hours-watch and four-hours-sleep on a ship; he works on into the night, or wakes and works. Firth-Smith had crit­i­cal suc­cess quite early. His first show in Syd­ney at the Terry Clune gallery was with Ian van Wierin­gen in 1962, while they were stu­dents. He talks about en­vy­ing friends able to make work eas­ily. I see him sail­ing on the tide, he sees him­self as strug­gling against it, and I think “This is a man who de­mands of him­self”. He pushes his tal­ent, he wants to go be­yond the im­age. He re­ar­ranged the stu­dio overnight, and as we go across John ex­plains its con­struc­tion, that of the other two sheds, the gar­den. He delights in buds on a flame tree, then we are in or­dered, crowded chaos. John keeps talk­ing, mov­ing. We wan­der around the space; stacked with doors, win­dows, tim­ber, his col­lec­tion of ban­jos. He first re­sists hav­ing the ban­jos pho­tographed; later he plays a sil­very tune to me. The ban­jos, their taut strings, their hol­low­ness, have echoed in the ab­stract paint­ings, as have nautical in­stru­ments, old tro­phies. Here is the cur­rent work, be­side a ta­ble high with the ob­jects from which it is de­rived. His paint­ings have of­ten given for­mal ex­pres­sion to the sense, of wa­ter, wind, wet, of taut rope, and swing­ing rope, the cir­cle of a com­pass or a bol­lard. In in­ter­views he has em­pha­sised his work de­rives from close ex­am­i­na­tion; when he ex­plored Syd­ney Har­bour from Laven­der Bay be­fore gen­tri­fi­ca­tion; of work­shops, tools, oil slicks. He’s used things that al­ready have ab­stract form: New York street vents, coins, but­tons, posts. I think of Firth-Smith as a pain­ter who seeks pat­tern and wants to ap­pro­pri­ate im­agery to ex­ploit it as ab­stract form. So I am sur­prised by the force of emo­tion I feel from the fig­u­ra­tive work on the stu­dio wall.

One set of paint­ings is con­sis­tent in colour and tone. Tak­ing up a small bro­ken rake-head from the pile, Firth-Smith ex­plains that these paint­ings come from ob­jects found un­der and on the ground on the prop­erty, which once housed a forge and horse sta­bles. In the early days vil­lage black­smiths made chains, hooks and ev­ery metal de­vice needed to mine or work the land. But their pur­pose is not the point. They have changed, they can’t be used, they have rusted, de­te­ri­o­rated and are bro­ken; the sur­faces are mys­te­ri­ous and they crum­ble, re­veal­ing lay­ers of de­cay. They con­vey an idea of their orig­i­nal use, but now they are some­thing else.

The ground on which he’s paint­ing the ob­jects is pink. He ex­plains he doesn’t want a lot of colour, he wants the skin colour – “it’s a very hard colour to get”. Usu­ally his paint­ing, he says, is about build­ing up colour, lay­ers. This is the trans­par­ent pink of white skin, of John’s skin, stained in some of the paint­ings with pinks and browns of dif­fer­ent tones.

Some­times the brush seems to have been pressed into the ground, lightly drawn down and pressed again: these ephemeral ges­tures em­pha­sise the idea of de­cay­ing mean­ing. The ef­fect has ex­tra force be­cause FirthSmith’s won­der­ful draughts­man­ship in­forms his im­agery. How do I put it? The rusty brown ob­jects, the shears, the rake-heads, the scythe that seems to weep for its lost sharp­ness, are at once ab­so­lutely recog­nis­able but at the same time imag­i­nary. Some paint­ings have, be­side the bro­ken cor­roded images, an im­pres­sion of the hinge or the ham­mer head, left in the ground. Hooks, slightly blurred but pre­cise, al­most translu­cent ham­mers and bolts, ask ques­tions about change over time.

I am think­ing of the his­tory of his work. Firth-Smith found his feet in geo­met­ric, for­mal paint­ings, which be­came more lyri­cal over the years. More re­cently he has shown direct images, hung be­side ab­stracted ver­sions of them­selves. A rope or a knot has flat­tened, lost vol­ume, lost de­tail, be­come a set of curves and cir­cles; pat­tern in play. Flags and poles, al­ready geo­met­ric, merged with the sea it­self. Sails be­came ar­eas of space. And the re­verse: an al­most solid mi­rage, the night wind still, a skele­tal pier or barge float­ing across the can­vas. Tro­phies, mem­o­ra­bilia of mo­men­tary achieve­ment, de­fined but in­def­i­nite.

The things on the ta­ble were buried, but emerged from the earth. He says heav­ier mat­ter floats up in Hill End – af­ter rain, some­times gold emerges on the sur­face. Each rusted item car­ries its own mean­ing, ev­i­dence of its own de­cay, it is trans­muted. In the paint­ings, brown on pink, the jux­ta­po­si­tion: a horse­shoe be­side a hinge and bit, a trap with a long bolt, a spike with a D-bolt shackle, make ab­stract pat­terns, adding to the sense of dis­place­ment and the shift in use and mean­ing.

Five tall, nar­row paint­ings of brooms hang to­gether. Stronger more geo­met­ric ar­eas of paint em­pha­sise the truth­fully rep­re­sented, but float­ing, ob­jects. The brooms were used rather than re­cov­ered, cast aside, not buried. One, the new­est-look­ing broom, is yel­lower than the oth­ers, there’s a black sec­tion above the bris­tles, which are bound with lines of warmer yel­low and blue-green.

I won­der how they will hang with the for­mally ab­stracted paint­ings, into which he has in­tro­duced the yel­lows and some black marks. He is still work­ing on these for­mal ab­stract pictures: I don’t ask. This is the frus­tra­tion and priv­i­lege of vis­its be­fore a body of work is fin­ished. His 2017 shows, at King Street Gallery, Syd­ney in March and with Ni­cholas Thomp­son Gallery, Melbourne in May, will be most in­trigu­ing. Ges­tur­ing to the pile of worn-out mys­te­ri­ous res­ur­rected things, he em­pha­sises his in­ten­tions. He says, “This is not about nos­tal­gia.”

The pictures are about the ran­dom­ness of de­cay, the dis­con­nec­tion be­tween present bits and pieces on the ta­ble and their orig­i­nal func­tion. Talk­ing about the im­pos­si­bil­ity for an artist of re­pro­duc­ing cer­tain images, he finds a pho­to­graph of car doors at a panel beater’s shop.

“That looks like a head­land, clouds, hori­zon, beach or some­thing, and that’s it, so when things get dam­aged, and some guy comes along and fills up the hole with a whole lot of bog or what­ever they call it, in a panel beat­ing shop, and then sprays it grey, when it is a beau­ti­ful Prus­sian blue Rolls-Royce or some­thing, and sud­denly there is this pink sort of blob where he’s filled up the dent, he’s not try­ing to make an arty shape, he’s fill­ing up the dent, but that shape is bet­ter than any shape any artist could make, be­cause he is not try­ing to be the artist, he is just fill­ing up a bloody dent.”

The process of ero­sion re­veals more about the thing than its orig­i­nal form. “Some artists start try­ing to de­sign things, in­stead of just al­low­ing it to hap­pen, like the rust ... You have to re­main that sort of in­no­cent per­son fill­ing up the dent. In other words you are fill­ing up your own dent.” He tells us that af­ter so many years he has evolved his own sen­si­bil­ity, his process is dif­fer­ent from that of other artists.

“I don’t paint still-lives, I don’t get a vase and put flow­ers in it and paint it,” and he ges­tures as if he were in front of an easel, be­side a ta­ble with his sub­ject set up.

He picks up what once was an axe head, and holds it out and asks me to look at the lay­ers, the tex­ture, the way it has changed. I am sit­ting, he is a tall man and he has to lean down, he is se­ri­ous and con­cerned that I un­der­stand. And I have an im­age; of his fa­ther, bend­ing down to the lit­tle boy, ex­plain­ing the tex­ture, the colour, the mean­ing of the shards he’d chipped off the wall of the mine.

I am re­plete with images, ideas, in­for­ma­tion. It’s been a most in­ter­est­ing time in the care of a fas­ci­nat­ing man. As we leave, John takes us to an area of mine shafts, and he leads me to one of in­cal­cu­la­ble depth. He is mak­ing a point about the place, the hard­ships of the min­ers. I think to my­self that min­ing, shafts, the colour and tex­ture of things that emerge from the ground, re­call the time with his fa­ther. There is al­ways the boy in the man.

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